Could a writer who once put me in a magical trance with a children’s book deliver an equally stunning book for adults? This question was on my mind when I picked up Minnesota author Kelly Barnhill’s new book, Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories, which is a collection of short stories for an adult audience. I loved Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon, a children’s fantasy that won a Newbery Medal. So, I picked up Dreadful Young Ladies with much anticipation and found that Barnhill does write equally well for an adult audience and imaginatively embraces more mature themes.
Some of her stories are love stories. “Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch” and “The Dead Boy’s Last Poem” have imaginative love interests, with the characters of a ghost that manifests itself with paper poems and a sasquatch. In “The Insect and the Astronomer: A Love Story,” the combination of characters in a love affair seems so unlikely, which makes it so delightful. “Open the Door and the Light Shines In” has an exchange of letters that that is brought into the dimension of the afterlife. While the stories have very vivid language, they are still told with the kind of innocence that would not be embarrassing if the story were shared with a professional acquaintance.
Grief and loss are other mature themes that Barnhill explores in this collection. Her love stories are no exception; even though “Mrs. Sorenson and the Sasquatch” has a happier ending than the other stories, the isolation that the couple needs to have from the town makes the ending bittersweet. “The Taxidermist’s Other Wife” is an unspoken plea to grieve for a woman who was not granted a funeral. “Elegy to Gabrielle—Patron Saint of Healers, Whores, and Righteous Thieves” is a flashback to the life of a woman who sang while she was being executed. While these stories are heart wrenching, Barnhill has a way of entering into them that makes a tragic situation too beautiful to turn away from.
Barnhill also writes a fresh fairy tale. Fans of the Grimms’ “Cinderella” will find a lot of familiarity in “Notes on the Untimely Death of Ronia Drake,” but it is not simply a retelling. This story has a lot of components that can be found in an original fairy tale: a stepmother, dismembered body parts, a witch, talking ravens, and an enchanted forest. But Barnhill spins her own story with these components and creates her own unique tale. For one thing, it is not clear who is supposed to be telling the story; I had to read it several times to make sense of it, only to realize that the story is meant to be ambiguous. After several rereadings, it became my favorite of all of the stories in the collection. (I have to give the disclaimer that I have a weakness for dark fairy tales.)
The collection concludes with “Unlicensed Magician.” This is a dystopian novella set in a world where magic is outlawed and a child with magical capabilities who is thought to be dead is raised by a junk man who lives on the fringes of society. The child starts to grow in her magical powers as she grows up, but her guardian is trying to protect her from the dictator who would take her for her magic if her powers were known. Barnhill follows the typical formula for dystopian fiction by using prohibitive rules and regimes as world-building tools for this story. I found myself initially wondering whether in our culture, where dystopian fiction is extremely popular, this story would stand out enough on its own. However, yet again, the author surpassed my expectations in creating her own world. She does not have any explicit connections to the contemporary real world we live in. All of the connections I made to the real world were in my own head and not hinted at on the page. This proved to be a very strong finish to her collection of stories.
In evaluating this collection as I whole, I would say that all of the stories left me in the magic trance that I had hoped for. I had enough time to just let the world fade away and be pulled into her stories until I completed the whole collection in one afternoon. And, like any good short-story collection, each story stands well on its own. Barnhill discusses in her afterword how she started out as a writer of short stories and how she finds them more difficult to write. However, I could never tell, as the stories in Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories made for easy reading.